Monday, February 29, 2016

Psi Wars: The Third Iteration - Technology

In the previous iterations, we started with a scratch concept, and then expanded the templates and rules with a helpful dose of GURPS Action.  Now, we'll take a look at technology.

Technology drives science fiction. Technology allows our characters to reach distant worlds, it shapes conflicts, and it provides the props and stage dressing that signals genre to our audience. Without the right technology, our game will just be a slightly overwrought reworking of GURPS Action.  With the wrong technology, we'll undermine the human-centric, whiz-bang space opera themes we've worked so hard to build. Our choice of technology will build our setting, it will shape our players' choices, and it will establish the themes of our game.

Let me make my usual disclaimer before I begin this iteration: we don't need to do this step. We've already seen in two playtests that the technology we've already selected works well enough.  I'm trying to refine and make my choices explicit, so I can improve my templates and my rulesets.  You'll notice throughout this process that I don't really diverge much from what I've stated in previous iterations so much as add greater clarity.  That said, what technology you allow and disallow and why really impacts a sci-fi campaign like this one.  Thus, fittingly, this iteration will go on for quite a while (I hope you like reading Ultra-Tech as much as I do)!

We must carefully define our technology and inform our players of that choice because, unlike in many other genres, we cannot take for granted that our players will know or understand the setting.  In a typical Action game, if I say that "One gang is going to attack another gang over drugs, and innocent civilians might be caught up in the attack," you know that they're going to attack each other with guns and that the drugs they're fighting over are probably cocaine or heroine and not, say, combat drugs or anagathics or drugs that enhance psionic potential.  You also understand that "innocent civilians are in danger" of stray bullets, not wild nanite-blooms or fires caused by plasma explosions.  In a science-fiction game, we don't have that luxury.  Here, we must define what gangsters might fight over, with what they will fight, and why innocent civilians might fear that particular fight.

Furthermore, technology shapes the setting directly.  The nature of FTL travel determines how interstellar civilizations fight wars (which is highly pertinent to us), industrial and economic technology determine over what resources wars are fought, military technology determines who fights those wars, and so on. We can, and should, let many of these elements fade into the background, but we have a choice: We can either wave our hands and make stuff up on the spot when it's necessary, as the movies do, or we can define them explicitly.  The former works well enough, and is the default if we skip this iteration.  But if we do define them, if we, as GM and campaign designer, have an understanding of how the setting works in the back of our mind, our adventures will be more consistent, and we'll find that scenarios tend to be easier to write as we can rely on the natural consequences of player actions.

Technology will also inform the players about what choices and tactics they can engage in. In a movie, characters move at the speed of plot, and nobody uses the perfect solution until the dramatically appropriate moment.  Players, however, solve problems, and if a reverse tachyon pulse from the main deflector dish worked last time, they'll try it again this time. Thus, we must have a cohesive universe that works the way the players expect it to work.  If the enemies use space fighters, space fighters should represents a viable tactic.  If walkers are worse than tanks and force swords are worse than blasters, don't count on players sticking to genre conventions when victory is on the line!  On the other hand, if genre convention and technological options agree with one another, the players will find the setting intuitive and satisfying.

But we don't want to overwhelm our setting with technology either.  Star Wars hails from an older era of science fiction (it was, itself, an homage to the pulp serials of the 1930s).  Star Wars lacks the introspection of transhuman sci-fi, or the cynicism of cyberpunk.  Instead, it features square-jawed heroes who overcome obstacles with wit, charm and muscle, rather than clever technological solutions.  In fact, Star Wars strives to create a familiar universe.  Their technology works like our technology, only "better, because it's more advanced."  We have bullets, but they have blasters,  we have kevlar armor, they have plastoid composite armor, we have cars, they have hover cars, and so on.  Conspicuously, Star Wars lacks technology that really changes society or individuals: they have bionic limbs, but not cybernetic implants or the technology that allows you to upload your mind.  They have robotic factories, but people still seem to work in them. They have advanced medicine, but they still farm herbs, fear natural poisons and diseases, and lack nanites or microbots.  This accomplishes two tasks: It keeps the game simple, and thus easy for the players to understand, and it keeps the action centered on the heroes and their innate capabilities, rather than making the game about how well one can use technology.

Thus, our course is clear: We must devise a simple set of technologies that resemble our modern world enough to make it familiar to players, and where it diverges, it should shape the setting we want and create interesting tactics, problems and solutions for our players to enjoy.

After that lengthy introduction, I want to start by taking a look at the broad strokes of technology: the technologies that shape our setting, such as FTL travel, industrial infrastructure, medicine and so on.  Later, we'll look at player gear, weapons, robots and, of course, spaceships. Finally, we'll look at what implications our choices have on the previous iterations. If you want to follow along with Iteration 3, I highly recommend Ultra-Tech, Unlike most of the tech books, Ultra-Tech is less of a reference than it is a world-building tool, and throughout this iteration, I hope you'll see what I mean.  But I'll be going further afield than that.  You'll do well to get your hands on the Spaceships series (but particularly Spaceships 1, 2, 3 and 4), and Pyramid #3-12, Pyramid #3-37, and Pyramid #3-51, all of which deal with technology.  I will also, briefly, touch on GURPS Space.  If you don't have all of these, that's fine.  You'll just find them helpful if you do.

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